Retail crime is a ‘crisis’ that demands action, warns BRC

Violence and abuse against retail workers soared by 50 per cent last year, according to the latest figures from the British Retail Consortium’s (BRC) crime survey.

Feb 14, 2024
By Paul Jacques
Picture: BRC

The number of incidents rose to 1,300 a day in 2022/23 – up from almost 870 a day the year before.

This rise comes despite retailers investing heavily in crime prevention, spending £1.2 billion on measures such as CCTV, increased security personnel and body-worn cameras, says the BRC.

The cost of theft to retailers went up to £1.8 billion from £953 million the previous year, meaning the total cost of crime to retailers stood at £3.3 billion – double the previous year.

It comes as the Co-op recorded more than 300,000 incidents of shoplifting, abuse, violence and anti-social behaviour against its staff last year – equating to almost 1,000 incidents every day across its 2,400 stores.

Physical assaults alone saw an increase of more than a third to 1,325 incidents – that is three or four store workers attacked or assaulted every day said the Co-op.

And more than 40,000 incidents of anti-social behaviour and abuse were recorded, an increase of 37 per cent.

The BRC’s annual crime survey highlights the scale of violence and abuse faced by people working in retail. Incidents, which include racial abuse, sexual harassment, physical assault, and threats with weapons, are now on a par with the levels seen during the pandemic, when staff bore the brunt of some people’s frustration with Covid safety measures, the BRC says.

While the total number of incidents climbed, dissatisfaction with the police increased, with 60 per cent of respondents describing the police response to incidents as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’.

Retailers are now joining the Co-op in calling on the Government to introduce a standalone offence of assaulting, threatening, or abusing a retail worker.

“This would send a clear message that this behaviour will not be tolerated, making retail workers feel safer in the workplace,” says the BRC.

“It would also mean the police have data that allows them to understand the scale of the issue, and to allocate sufficient resources to deal with it. This would ensure that retail workers have the same protection under the law as they do in Scotland, where a similar offence was introduced in 2021.”

The  National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), however, says the Retail Crime Action Plan launched last year to drive down shoplifting and violence against shop worker is already showing “positive results”.

A ‘dip sample’ of force data shows an increase in attendance at shoplifting incidents, it said.

Since the introduction of the Retail Crime Action Plan, the non-attendance rate has improved to 38 per cent, said the NPCC.

Helen Dickinson OBE, chief executive of the BRC, said: “Despite retailers investing huge sums in crime prevention, violence and abuse against retail workers is climbing.

“With over 1,300 incidents every day, government can no longer ignore the plight of ordinary, hardworking retail colleagues. Teenagers taking on their first job, carers looking for part-time work, parents working around childcare. And while the violence can be over in a moment, the victims carry these experiences with them for a lifetime.

“And we all know the impact does not stop there – it affects their colleagues, friends, and the family our colleagues go home to. This is a crisis that demands action now.

“Criminals are being given a free pass to steal goods and to abuse and assault retail colleagues. No one should have to go to work fearing for their safety.

“The Protection of Workers Act in Scotland already provides additional protection to retail workers, so why should our hardworking colleagues south of the border be offered less protection? It is vital that government takes action – introducing a new standalone offence for assaulting or abusing a retail worker.”

Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Katy Bourne OBE, the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners lead for business crime, said: “The levels of retail crime described in this report reveal an unprecedented level of selfish lawlessness. Every day, retail staff are facing the consequences of shoplifters’ brazen behaviour and that’s why I have supported the call for a specific offence of assault on a shop worker.

“Some say it’s the cost of living that’s driving people to shoplift, I say it’s because it’s easy money for shoplifters, many of whom don’t get challenged or prosecuted even if they are arrested.  Some people steal because they have drug or alcohol addictions but retailers and police say that many of them are being exploited by organised crime gangs and stealing for them.

“That’s why I established Pegasus with 15 of the UK’s biggest retailers, to map the organised crime gangs operating across the retail sector at a national level so that local police can identify and disrupt them more effectively.

“Many of the most harmful and persistent offenders simply waltz through the revolving doors of our magistrates’ courts, heading straight back out into our supermarkets to sweep the shelves with impunity.

“Our courts need to work more efficiently and shoplifters need to be deterred from re-offending.  That’s why I’d like to see wider use of facial recognition technology and I’ve asked Ministers to support my proposals to tag persistent shoplifters so that their movements can be tracked.  I’m also calling for my fellow PCCs to focus their police forces on tackling shoplifting by making it a priority in their local Police and Crime Plans.

“We need to reclaim our high streets from criminals who think they won’t be caught and we need to give our police the tools they need to catch them and send a strong message to the nation’s shopworkers that abuse against them will not be tolerated.”

Jason Towse, managing director of business services at Mitie, the facilities management company that works closely with retailers, said the number of incidents against shop workers was “beyond unacceptable”.

“The new figures show there are now 1,300 violent and abusive incidents against shop workers per day up from 837 in the previous year,” he said. “Over the course of the year that is 475,000 people who have faced physical or psychological harm just by going to work. This is beyond unacceptable.

“Nobody should be faced with violence at work. The proposed amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill to introduce a standalone offence of assaulting, threatening or abusing a retail worker must be supported, a clear signal that violence will not be tolerated.

“Amending the Bill alone is just one element in a package of solutions. With multiple drivers of retail crime, we need a consistent, multi-layered approach to stamp it out. Criminals are constantly evolving their techniques and so must the retail industry if it is to gain the edge over offenders.”

Mr Towse added: “Pegasus, a new initiative launched in late 2023, brings together a powerful combination of industry leading technology with highly trained specialists. Through Pegasus, the sharing of anonymised information between 13 retailers including Boots, M&S and Co-op is already starting to build a bigger picture of retail crime across the UK.

“Crime hotspots and patterns can be mapped, and data can be provided to the police. An organised crime gang can be tracked from Liverpool to Leicester to Llandudno.

“For retailers, the security industry, police and the Government, it’s important that we continue to collaborate to fight retail crime or we will find ourselves looking at a further increase over the next 12 months. We cannot let that happen, our retail workers, and their families, deserve better. Shoplifting is not a victimless crime.”

Kieran Mackie, managing director of Amulet Security, said the BRC’s figures were “incredibly concerning”.

“Frontline staff in retail positions deserve to work in safe and supportive environments. The BRC’s figures highlight the importance of a security presence in retail spaces,” he said.

“Security officers represent a layer of protection that can deter people from committing crimes and abuse. This is especially important considering that 60 per cent of BRC respondents stated that the police response was poor or very poor. This suggests that a safety presence is needed prior to police intervention.

“Security personnel provide much more than a physical presence. They are required to have soft skills that can help de-escalate threatening scenarios and communicate with people displaying violent or concerning behaviour. This should be the first option, with physical intervention only used as a last resort. It’s up to security providers to ensure that their officers are equipped with the necessary soft skills.

“In shopping centres, having an on-site security presence means officers are close by and on call without being obtrusive, and is much more cost effective than each individual outlet hiring their own security. Officers also function as customer support throughout the area, helping direct people and answer questions, which is again where those soft skills are useful.

“No retail worker should be scared to go to work or anticipate harassment or abuse of any sort. Security officers can help reduce the likelihood of abuse and reassure retail workers that they are protected.”

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